I rarely see people carrying portable CD players anymore as it is much more convenient (size of players, amount of music, battery life) to burn your music to digital format or simply buy it online and download it to your PC/Mac. Many MP3 players support video too, but I'll focus on just MP3/music capability in this guide. Even though the Apple iPod is the leader in the MP3 category there are still many other solutions available that you may want to consider this holiday season, including products from Microsoft, SanDisk, Sony, Slacker, Creative, and more. It is actually a bit surprising how many other models of MP3 players there still are on the market, but it really is tough to compete with the iPod and Zune players now that even their prices are dropping significantly.
It is hard to argue that the iPod touch isn't the best multimedia player on the market with its large touch screen, slim design, and incredible user interface. That said, it is also quite expensive at US$229 for the 8GB, US$299 for the 16GB, and US$399 for the 32GB models so you'll have to find someone really special to give one of these to this year. The ability to listen to samples and then buy/download music via a WiFi connection is a compelling feature of the device. The cover art in landscape mode, Genius music feature, and gaming aspects make the iPod touch a powerful mobile device and if I didn't have an iPhone I would definitely have an iPod touch.
Microsoft has tweaked the Zune device a couple of times and now the device is the BEST subscription-based device on the market, IMHO. The interface is fluid and intuitive, playback with a good set of headphones is fantastic, and you can now download music wirelessly with a WiFi connection. The latest update now lets you download and keep 10 songs per month with the US$14.99 monthly Zune Pass subscription. Thus, then net cost for listening to thousands of songs a month is just about $5 and is a deal that is tough to pass up. The Zune devices are also reasonable priced with the two hard drive based models at US$229 and US$249. Another nice feature about the Zune device is that they are easily upgraded, even back to the first generation (we are now at the third generation) devices. Video, photos, games, and FM radio are also supported on these Zune models.
The Apple iPod Classic continues with the hard drive-based iPod design that resembles the first iPods that hit the market several years ago. This 2nd generation Classic is a compelling device for those with very large music collections who are more focused on music than video content. The Classic comes with 120GB of storage space for up to 30,000 songs. It includes some of the user interface elements from the iPod touch (such as cover flow and Genius features). The iPod Classic 2nd generation is available for US$249 and comes in black or silver.
The Apple iPod nano has gone through an overall and the device is available now in a multitude of colors to match every style. The flash-based MP3 players are available in 8GB and 16GB versions and also support video playback and games. Many of the same UI features (cover flow in landscape) seen on the iPod touch are also present in the iPod nano. The 8GB model is US$149 and the 16GB model is US$199. The device is slim and sleek and since most people don't have collections over 2,000 or 4,000 songs the nano may be the perfect fit this holiday season.
For those who want to save some money, have a smaller player, and still get the same great subscription features found in the Zune 80 or 120, then you can pick up a flash-based Zune in 4, 8, or 16GB capacities. Even though these Zune devices are much more compact, they still have a 320x240 display for video content. These smaller Zune devices also include the FM radio and wireless capabilities found in the large Zune devices. The three capacity Zune models are priced at US$99, US$139, and US$179.
I used an original iPod shuffle for about a year as my main exercise/gym music player because it was light and compact and did not require any interaction to use and enjoy. Apple is now in its third generation of the shuffle with both 1GB and 2GB models available in small clip-on form factor. The shuffle is available in five different colors and you may want to get one with a brighter color since it is so small it can easily be misplaced. The capacities are quite limited on the shuffle (240 songs for the 1GB and 500 songs for the 2GB, estimate) so it really is designed for the gym where you may spend an hour working out and not for storing your entire music collection. There is no display and all music is played in a couple of preselected methods. At US$49 for the 1GB model, it is a compelling choice for the new digital music consumer.
The name Sony Walkman takes me back to the days of carrying around my mobile cassette player and AM/FM radio. However, the Walkman today is significantly improved over those large devices from years ago with support for music and audio files in digital format. The E-series Walkman has a FM radio, support for Rhapsody To Go and other music services, and reported long battery life. You cannot expand the memory capacity. The Sony E-series Walkman comes in 8GB and 4GB models priced from US$73 to US$120 so it is a reasonable lower cost alternative.
SanDisk is a leader in flash memory cards and they also have a good MP3 player solution with the Sansa Fuze. In addition to the integrated 8GB, 4GB, and 2GB flash drives, the Sansa Fuze has an integrated microSD card slot for memory expansion (with support for cards now up to 16GB in capacity) and for supporting their slotMusic cards. SlotMusic cards (microSD card format) are the new CD format where you can buy a physical card at retail locations like Best Buy. Photos and videos can also be viewed on the 1.8 inch display. The SanDisk Fuze is priced from US$75 to US$130.
The Slacker G2 is an interesting entry into the portable audio market because while it does have MP3 capabilities it is focused on its free music service that you can use on the device to listen to thousands of different songs. You select "stations" or listen on your PC and your selected content is made available on the device via the WiFi or USB connection. All of the songs are available to enjoy for free (with some ads) or you can upgrade to a premium account for a bit more functionality and no ads. The Slacker G2 (4GB 25-station) model is available for US$199.99. The 8GB (40 station) model
does not seem to be available yet is available at Best Buy, Amazon, and Slacker's website.
The Creative Zen X-Fi may be one of the most feature packed digital media players you may not have heard much about before. There are 32GB, 16GB, and 8GB models available starting at US$140 and going up to US$280. The Zen X-Fi is packed with photo, video, music, and Audible support, including subscription music service support (Napster). The device also has an FM radio, voice recorder, SD expansion card slot, and WiFi radio (local streaming from your PC). You will need a Windows PC to get music onto the device.
Creative has been competing with Apple in the MP3 player category for some time and the Zen Mosaic is their latest dedicated player that includes features like a FM radio, voice recorder, integrated speaker, and photo/video support. The Zen Mosaic comes in a pink, black, or silver and is a solid music player from a company who has been working on these devices for several years.